October 1999 E-Zine Issue
FULFILLING WINTER'S PROMISE IN ANCIENT IRELAND
by Jasmine Boyd © 1999
Among practitioners of centuries-old Earth Religions, "Samhain" (or Halloween) is a solemn sort of festival, a brazen send-off signaling the end of the harvest season. It's a time when Nature shifts gears and the Wheel of Life rotates a little slower as she prepares for the sleep of Winter.
Even the primitive farmers of Stone-Age Ireland recognized the onset of a gray and fruitless season, a far more solemn occasion since it demanded no less than the literal balancing of life and death until Spring returned. The inevitable rest and rejuvenation for crop land and for the spiky, leafless trees must have been dim solace for those whose survival depended upon dwindling stores of harvest.
All Photographs by Jasmine Boyd©
By Winter Solstice - December 21, the shortest day of the year, tribal doldrums probably reached their lowest. What the people needed was a reminder that the sun's light and warmth would come back again to green their fields and forests.
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Bru na Boinne ("Newgrange") prehistoric passage-tomb in the Boyne River Valley near Dublin, Ireland. The horizontal kerb stones at the Mound's base are purely for structural support. The white quartz stones that form the facing of the crescent originally continued in a solid curve closer to the entrance stone than it does today. The wall had to be cut back to permit easier public access to the Monument.
And so, 5000 years ago on a hill overlooking the Boyne River, the people built a testimony to their faith and a legacy of their knowledge that now transcends former anthropological views of Stone-Age Man. Today the site, once occupied by these nameless tribes about whose culture little is known, is called "Newgrange," a National Monument in County Meath, Ireland... a scant 50 km (about 31 miles) northwest of Dublin.
Newgrange is regarded as one of Western Europe's finest examples of a prehistoric passage-tomb. Typically these burial mounds (or cairns) assume hilltop positions and consist of a passage from the outside circumference to an interior chamber containing the remains. There's nothing unusual about burial mounds, they've always been a remembered part of the Irish countryside. But research, accumulated since the first excavations of Newgrange in 1962, reveals some startlingly unusual features. The unexpected sophistication of its interior construction, in particular a device (the only one of its kind yet discovered) that displays a phenomenon associated with the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon doubtlessly provided both physical and spiritual reassurance to its megalithic designers but also guarantees "Newgrange" its place among the most amazing tourist attractions in the world.
At sunrise on December 21 a direct beam of sunlight enters through the slit beneath the roof box, a unique structure ABOVE the entrance at the outer end of the passage roof. The brightness slowly gropes along the passageway and fills the inner chamber -perhaps carrying with it a more profound message than the return of Spring... one that promises rebirth for those buried within. Just as in Spring, when the sun warms the soil, awakening dormant seeds into growth and re-emergence through the earth's surface, souls too may stir in remembrance of the light and become reborn.
For 17 minutes sunlight illuminates the passage and chamber before the year-long night once again plunges the mound's interior into unimaginable darkness. Living visitors to Newgrange can expect standing room only for about 20 observers, therefore, the waiting list extends to the year 2007 for an in-person performance of the Winter Solstice within the chamber.
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The intricately carved entrance stone to the passageway at "Newgrange," The 62 ft. long passage is lined with standing stones, some similarly inscribed with spirals and other geometric figures. The designs were done using flint points, as it would be many years before metal was discovered by the descendants of these early Irish tribes.
Fortunately, "Newgrange" is popular on many travel itineraries throughout the year with shuttle buses spanning the several miles between the Mound and its associated high tech museum and cultural center. Unlike England's famous Stonehenge, where years of pseudo-Druidic rowdiness and pilgrimages of pillage resulted in a protective distance between the Monument and the public, the magickal forces at "Newgrange" are freely accessible to all.
Older than the whispered mysteries of Stonehenge, older even than the fabled secrets of Egypt's pyramids, "Newgrange" literally opens a window onto the past. That these tribes along the Boyne River were farmers and stock raisers is consistent with what has been known about Stone-Age people for generations. But "Newgrange" is unique, revealing tribal knowledge of engineering and astronomical principles never believed possible before.
However, despite the archeological authenticity derived from meticulous research and restoration, little is mentioned about the decidedly non-scientific aspects of "Newgrange." Spectators must speculate over much that is left unsaid and perhaps this is an intentional example of the indomitable Irish innuendo... a national characteristic as subtle and enchanting as their storytelling ("craic"), their music or the mystical bonds that hold the two together.
At "Newgrange" the pagan presence, the Goddess energy is not only intense but unmistakable. It is thought that as long as 8000 ago, years human settlements existed in the valley where the Boyne River flows languidly through a countryside of velvety green, clover-covered hills. Logically, builders of the passage-tombs came along later... "Newgrange" itself dates from about 3200 BC.
The most obvious and instantaneously spectacular vestiges of the "Old Religion" at "Newgrange" is the front of the burial mound. Small, white quartz stones sweep halfway around the dome shaped monument, originally incorporating the entrance to the passage-tomb at its greatest height in the center, then gradually tapering down on either end. The resulting figure is that of the crescent moon, laying on its side and partially enclosing the hilltop mound. It resembles a Celtic torque encircling the neck, or the Horns of Isis adorning the Nile Queen's headdress. But in actuality it is older than either of these representations and both of the cultures utilizing them. The "Newgrange" crescent moon must have had considerable ritual importance because the white quartz stones were brought from deposits in County Wicklow, a mountainous region south of Dublin and many Stone-Age miles from the Boyne River Valley.
The significance of "Newgrange" to those who built it is forever interred within the silence of pre-history. Yet, the size and intricacy of its construction suggests, as does Egypt's pyramids, that it served as an active worship center rather than merely an elaborate entombment.
According to legend, the tribal chieftains (Kings) of nearby Tara Hill, the nucleus of Celtic power, were buried at "Newgrange." However, science says "Newgrange" was no longer in use, had been sealed and was already 3000 years old when the Kings of Tara ruled the land.
"Newgrange" also offers irrefutable proof of certain pre-Christian archetypal symbols, such as the Triad (or Trinity), the Spiral but most notably the Cross. The passage-tomb of "Newgrange" extends approximately 1/3 the diameter of the Mound, for example, and the passage, together with its chamber, is cross-shaped (or cruciform). A long, narrow passage leads to a 3 sectioned chamber with the arms of the cross branching to the East and West and its "head" pointing North. The standing stones (Orthostats) that line the passage and chamber are laboriously carved with spirals, long held to be symbolic of eternity. And the "roof cap" directly above the chamber is a square slab of stone. To students of the occult, the constituent elements of physical matter have long been abbreviated by simple geometric forms, the square being emblematic of "Earth." Why decorate the INSIDE of a group grave destined to remain completely dark except for a few moments on a special day each year: to remind those left inside that life continues? The entrance stone echoes the spiral motif, all of which was chiseled into softer rock by people who used tools of harder rock.
These prehistoric tribes cremated their dead and since the interior stones show no sign of torches being used, it is supposed that rituals were conducted outside the Mound, then the ashes, bone fragments and burial offerings conveyed inside as quickly as possible. Left in the recesses of the stone basins within the chamber, the remains arrived at their final destination. To the Stone-Age mind interment was probably practiced in a process as hasty as its perceived risk. After all, it's likely that venturing into the abode of the dead, into the Earth that appeared to give and take life indiscriminately, required uncommon courage.
Further indication that Ireland's Stone-Age civilization not only embraced the concept of universal spirit, but also honored it through ceremony, is the modern finding that the ashes of cremated men and women were mixed together before burial.
Like the Egyptian ankh, the cruciform passage and chamber at "Newgrange" could be a stylized depiction of the human form, a belief in the immortality of the soul or an acknowledgement that spirit, as pure essence, has no gender. We know, for instance, that the ankh is symbolic of life but it too is an abstraction - formed from the combined symbols for Osiris (their Sun God) and Isis (their primary Goddess) - progenitors of mortal men and women.
Throughout history Ireland has been known as much for its mischievous faerie folk as for the Blarney Stone's gift of gab, or the searing whiskey responsible for many a smiling Irish eye. Though not thought of as malevolent beings, "the little people" had a reputation for unpleasant impishness as well as a tendency to become easily angered. People prone to superstition who wished to circumvent the ire of these supernatural beings, routinely spoke well of them and respected their dwellings, which included burial cairns such as "Newgrange."
Despite the fact that access to the tomb has existed for more than 200 years, formal excavation of the site did not begin until 35 years ago. Perhaps the faerie folk are better at guarding their treasure than might be believed. Certainly 'tis grander to attribute "Newgrange" to its legendary origin. Called Bru na Boinne, the Great God An Dagda Mor supposedly built the tomb for himself and his 3 sons (Aonghus, Aodh and Cermaid). But legend is the stuff of hearth side storytelling and the shine of Irish eyes by firelight... then again, it might be "the little people" havin' a wee bit of malarkey with the humdrumery of our daily lives.